Cars
Reviewed by Kate Wilaert
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2006-08-20 GameCube Racing E (Everyone) THQ / Rainbow Studios

I've been a huge fan of Pixar for some time now, in particular because of their impressive ability to create films that are truly for "all ages", appealing equally to kids and adults without having to resort to a using barrage of pop-culture references in order to keep the adults interested.

Utilizing the strength of the movie's concept and a script written by Pixar to be a continuation of the events of the film, THQ and Rainbow Studios have delivered in Cars a videogame with the potential to similarly appeal to players of all ages. Not to mention, possibly the first racing game ever to be driven (no pun intended) by an engaging story. Sadly, the game isn't without its sizeable share of faults.

Games based on films are always a risky prospect. This can be largely credited to the compressed production schedule of any game based on a movie license - films are generally produced on a shorter timeline than games, and there is a strong desire to have the game out in time to take advantage of the movie's initial release buzz. Taking that into account, it can seem pretty surprising when a game turns out as well as this one. At the same time, I think in this case it might have helped a little that animated films take longer to produce, thus allowing the game developers a little more lead time. So while I'd like give them the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent on certain things, I don't want to give them too much.

But first, let's talk about the good stuff. The main game finds Lightening McQueen in the town of Radiator Springs at the start of a new racing season. You take him through a series of Piston Cup races (their equivalent of NASCAR), culminating in the big final race. Along the way you'll end up taking part in a number of smaller races, as well as the occasional mini-game, facing off against friends or rivals as smaller stories unfold.

Where Cars sets itself apart from most racers I've encountered is how you go about selecting a particular course: by driving to it! When not in an active race, you'll find yourself able to freely roam the town of Radiator Springs and the surrounding "county". It's an incredibly vast map. When all the areas have been opened up, it might take a good five minute drive at full speed on the main road to get from the far west side to the far east side. This is because the entire area is made up of different potential race tracks, all connected to one another. Basically, every track in the game except the Piston Cup ones are represented somewhere on the map.

To initiate a new race, you end up driving to the starting point of the race (a radar shows you what's currently available), the only exception being the Piston Cup races, which occur out of town, and thus the access point ends up being your semi transport, Mack. It's very smartly done, and makes for kind of a fun world to idly explore for a while. There are almost always multiple choices as to what race to do next, and while you need to beat certain tracks before others are unlocked, it makes for a relatively non-linear experience even while working within the constraints of a story.

One of the games biggest strengths is just how nice it looks. Beautifully designed environments and nicely animated vehicles. It's so weird sometimes, seeing a car with a moving mouth on the front greeting you as you pass by, or complaining if you?‚…ve run into them.

It?‚…s also a lot of fun hearing many of the actual voices from the movie, even if they do quickly become fairly repetitive (surprise, surprise). The only time a voice became annoying enough that I considered finding a way to turn them off was in the "paint shop" where Cheech Marin's character just ran his voice non-stop, repeating the same stupid phrases over and over, ad nauseam.

Which lands us squarely in the realm of the bad stuff. I have all sorts of little complaints that could border on nitpicking, but there are a few very significant problems that become noticeably apparent, particularly when they directly affect gameplay.

One of these is the confusing level of difficulty of the opponents. It's sometimes so easy to take and keep the lead on most tracks that it's normal to not run into any of your opponents for the rest of the race... unless you make a big mistake somewhere, and suddenly they'll pass you out of nowhere. And it's not too difficult to make mistakes, when a number of tracks contain "off-road" portions where the road sometimes blends in too much with the surrounding terrain, creating a feeling like the track just disappeared out from under you. Particularly during night courses (McQueen is a stock car, and as such doesn't have headlights while the majority of cars you face do). The result is races that end up either boring or frustrating, or both.

Fortunately the game only lasts about eight hours, so it's over quickly.

I wonder if part of the reason the difficulty ended up being so odd is because they were trying for a balance between something both kids and adults could use? It?‚…s really baffling to me that they didn't try creating more than one difficulty mode. When you start a new file, you'll notice that they did try something like a difficulty setting: you're greeted with a choice between Full Size mode (the full Cars experience, for drivers of all ages) and Compact mode (a shorter, easier experience, aimed at younger drivers). Out of curiosity, I tried a bit of the Compact mode, and the only difference I really noticed was that they made the game shorter by taking out a lot of the in-between stuff, like being able to freely roam the map. The difficulty level of the opponents didn't seem wildly different. I guess they were just afraid of kids getting lost on the way to a course?

For similar reasons, the multiplayer also falls flat. Multiplayer consists of access to any of the tracks you?‚…ve opened via the Story Mode, including the same boring-to-race-against AI opponents. Maybe it'd suddenly become fun with four players - I only tried it two-player with a friend - but it's hard to say. I'd love to have had the tracks organized into "circuits" of sorts a la Mario Kart (my gold standard when it comes to multiplayer racing games), from which Cars could have learned a thing or two as far as difficulty settings and AI as well.

A few other major annoyances were the saving process, the music, game progression and bugs.

Saving is made extra tedious throughout the game by being asked numerous times whether you're "really sure" you want to save to your memory card. The following is the actual dialogue you encounter anytime you try to save:

"Would you like to save your profile to the Memory Card in Slot A?"
"Are you sure you wish to save profile data to the Memory Card in Slot A?"
"Are you sure you wish to overwrite the previously saved profile data on the Memory Card in Slot A?"

The first time, I laughed. The thirtieth time I was homicidal.

A lot of the music, which is taken straight from the movie, doesn't feel particular fitting as something you'd want to race to, and most of the default music is largely country-based (i.e. "twangy"). There's a Jukebox function in Options that allows you to choose which songs you want to hear, but what little is left after you switch off the twangy stuff gets pretty repetitive. Eventually, I opted just to turn off the music completely. Thankfully they included such an option.

Game progressing... Remember how vast and open I'd mentioned the map is? Well, there comes a point in the game where races appear far enough apart from each other that it becomes a real chore to drive all the way over there when you just want to finish the game already. The developers at least had the foresight to allow you to view a map of the whole area (by pressing Z) where you can skip directly to a course, but for some reason they've set it so it only works for courses you've already beaten! You can somewhat "cheat" your way over by finding a course nearby that you already beat, selecting it, and quitting out (you'll magically find yourself at that course's marker)... but really, that's just uncalled for.

As for the bugs, once you've gotten far enough along in the game, you start to discover that not all of them have been worked out of the game (at least in my Gamecube version). In particular the very west side of the map, where some roads will consistently make the game start skipping frames, badly enough that the first time I was worried it was going to freeze up on me completely. They seem to be more common later in the game, probably a sign of that previously mentioned shorter development time.

Ultimately, Cars is a potentially fun game, plagued with numerous issues. I have to suggest that it's only worthy of a rental.

I understand it's also currently being further developed for release on the Xbox 360, the PS3, and as a Wii launch title. Perhaps they'll still be able to work out all problems that kept this release from living up to it's full potential?